Road hogs

February 16, 2004

DON'T GET us wrong: A 40 percent increase in federal highway money to Maryland over the next six years and a 59 percent boost in mass transit money sounds mighty tempting.

Certainly, the construction contractors and business interests drooling last week over the prospect of more state transportation spending would swoon over such a swollen federal revenue stream. With such largess, much could be done to shorten commuting times, ease congestion and improve the quality, safety and efficiency of all Maryland's ground transportation.

But the $318 billion election-year bonanza approved by the Senate Thursday amounts to another theft from the future by a government already deeply in the red. Any new jobs created to build roads and fix bridges would come at the expense of the overall economy, already threatened by half-trillion-dollar annual deficits.

What's more, the measure allows rollbacks of environmental protections that would allow large highway projects to be built without considering the impact on air pollution.

That could condemn the Baltimore-Washington metropolitan areas to even dirtier air than what is already some of the most unhealthy stuff in the nation.

The Bush administration's threat to veto a transportation bill that exceeds the funds available through gasoline taxes may have been mostly political posturing. Certainly, the Senate's Republican leadership and many GOP senators ignored it when they voted by a margin large enough to override a veto to spend $62 billion more than Mr. Bush says is affordable.

But he was right. And if the bill isn't greatly slimmed down in negotiations with the House, Mr. Bush should follow through on the veto threat and call the Senate's bluff.

Normally levelheaded legislators lose their wits when it comes to highway bills, the most luscious of all pork packages. With Republicans sweating bullets over job losses during their three years in control of Washington, the prospect of a "jobs bill" that might create hundreds of thousands of new well-paying positions is all but irresistible.

"Never get between a congressman and asphalt because you will get run over," observed Sen. Rick Santorum, a Pennsylvania Republican among the tiny band of resisters who, he correctly predicted, would wind up as "road kill."

In their besotted state, senators talked themselves into a scheme of adding to the gas tax receipts that normally pay for transportation projects by transferring other revenue sources into the transportation pot. Even at that, they came up short, all but guaranteeing the extra spending would simply be added to the national debt.

Maryland officials have high hopes for federal help with several major transit projects, but could get by just fine on the 13 percent boost Mr. Bush proposed for highways.

Every state ought to trim its demands to what the budget can afford, or support a gas tax increase to pay for the difference.

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